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It was already a feat 21 years ago, when Barbra Streisand became the first female artist with four No. 1 albums in each of the four past decades. Then she hit the top of the Billboard charts again in 2009, becoming the only artist to ever have five No. 1s in five decades. This week, Streisand padded the record books even further: Her new album, Partners, debuted at No. 1, and so she sits alone in having produced six No. 1s in six decades.

Her first chart-topping album was People in 1964. It’s no easy task to stay relevant for 50 years. Times change (in fact, Streisand has recently joined Instagram). How has she found a consistency that no one else has been able to match? Here are five reasons we’re still listening to Barbra Streisand in 2014.

The voice

You think Streisand, you should immediately think: that voice. She carries the technical proficiency of a mezzo soprano that allows her to hit and hold the high notes that most people love in a diva’s singing. Yet her voice remains distinctly her own, sometimes nasally and conversational, always reminding you of her Brooklyn roots. That powerful gift of hers has barely waned over the years. Can you tell whether a Streisand song was recorded in 1974 or 2014? Compare her latest reimagining of The Way We Were with Lionel Richie on Partners to the 40-year-old original and hear for yourself.

The audience

Streisand is 72 years old. Her audience is likely the same age, and that is said endearingly. In the ever-shrinking industry of selling music on CDs, it is likely that her core of older fans are one of the few age demographics that is clinging on to the physical medium, which in turn helped Partners reach No. 1. With first-week sales of 196,000 copies, the new album seems on track to outsell her 2011 effort, What Matters Most (210,000). But it may fall just short of the 500,000 gold standard of her last No. 1, 2009’s Love Is The Answer. Even that is a far cry from Streisand’s platinum days: 1980’s Guilty sold five-million copies in the United States. If she plans on another release or two in the future, it may be prudent to get them out quick – while her biggest fans can still indulge.

The standards

Not only has Streisand been steadfast in popularity, she has also exhibited the same quality in her music. Would you like to hear soft and jazzy Streisand today, or soaring and bombastic Babs? Of her 10 No. 1 albums, half of them are theatre standards (The Broadway Album, 1985, Back to Broadway, 1993), jazz standards (Love Is The Answer, 2009), greatest hits (Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1978) or rerecordings of herself (the current Partners). This is not a bad approach to music-making, as no one can argue that Streisand and Sondheim’s Somewhere from West Side Story aren’t a perfect match. (But speaking of Somewhere, it can be argued that the world could do without the 2014 version featuring Josh Groban.) It should simply be noted that Streisand’s road to success is paved with familiar, comfortable show tunes that John Tesh would play on his radio show, and that’s okay.

The personality

Streisand’s story has been told and retold, but only because it’s such a captivating tale: her father’s death when she was an infant; Broadway producers who thought her too ugly for the stage; her penchant for perfectionism, which may be her most vital personal contribution to her continued success. She’s become an outsized personality in her later age by taking a reserved approach to celebrity. Consider that she hadn’t been on The Tonight Show in 50 years, making her recent appearance so rarefied that host Jimmy Fallon devoted the entire hour to the singer – even giving up his chair to her in extreme deference.

People imagine what it would be like to hang out with Babs. There is even a hit one-man off-Broadway show about this very daydream, called Buyer & Cellar. It even garnered a 2013 Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance and comes to Toronto in November. The synopsis: “Inspired by Barbra Streisand’s My Passion for Design, Buyer & Cellar is part truth, part fiction. The facts? Streisand has a shopping mall in the basement of her Malibu home, featuring a doll shop, an antique clothing store and a sweets shop, complete with a frozen yogurt machine, as detailed in her 2010 book. Playwright Jonathan Tolins takes the wackiness a step further as he imagines a man who is hired to work in the basement of the mall…with Babs as his only customer. The one-man show tells the story of Alex More, a struggling Los Angeles actor who takes a gig working in the basement mall, and develops an unlikely and hilarious friendship with Streisand.”

There is also a song called Barbra Streisand.

The friends

Do you remember Streisand’s 1997 album Higher Ground? Neither do I. But you probably do know the song Tell Him, her duet with Celine Dion. That was the single that helped make Higher Ground her second No. 1 album of the 1990s. That Dion collaboration, and another with Bryan Adams, helped usher in a second era of Babs and her famous friends.

A share of her early success can be attributed to her work with Barry Gibb, who produced her bestselling Guilty in 1980 (and appeared on the iconic cover).

One of her most popular songs from the late 1970s is also a duet: You Don't Bring Me Flowers would have been a much different song without Neil Diamond.

Streisand’s modern-day Gibb turns out to be Diana Krall, who produced her No. 1 jazz album Love Is The Answer in 2009. And, of course, Partners is comprised entirely of duets. She stakes her name to a mostly impressive list of singers. Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli are very bankable men, as are Lionel Richie and Babyface. But if Partners fails to achieve gold status, perhaps we can blame it all on John Mayer.


Barbra Streisand’s No. 1 Billboard albums

  • People, 1964
  • The Way We Were, 1974
  • A Star Is Born, 1976
  • Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1978
  • Guilty, 1980
  • The Broadway Album, 1985
  • Back to Broadway, 1993
  • Higher Ground, 1997
  • Love Is the Answer, 2009
  • Partners, 2014

Barbra Streisand’s No. 1 Billboard singles

  • People, 1964
  • The Way We Were, 1974
  • Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born), 1977
  • You Don't Bring Me Flowers, 1978
  • No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), 1979
  • Woman in Love, 1980

Barbra Streisand’s No. 1 albums in Canada

  • A Star Is Born, 1976
  • Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1978
  • Streisand Superman, 1977
  • Guilty, 1980

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